Cathy's 34-year legacy of low self esteem.


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I can’t say that I’m upset that Cathy, the comic strip by Cathy Guisewite, will be ending it’s 34-year run on October 3. I’ve never been a huge fan of the strip, preferring more political bite (Doonesbury) or more lively domestic pratfall (Zits) in my comics fare. Still, the end of Cathy marks the end of an era that more or less coincides with my youth and a good chunk of my middle age. 34 years is a long time to riff on guilt-inducing mothers, dead-beat boyfriends, and the effect of ice cream and chocolate cake on female thighs, but though the jokes may have gotten tired, their repetition has itself been part of the appeal. The dog may die, the kids may leave home, but summer will come again and Cathy will be back in that dressing room with that ever-indulgent saleslady, trying on bathing suits.

Why is the strip coming to an end? Cathy Guisewite has said, in the suspicious manner of disgraced politicians, that she wants to spend more time with her family–specifically to help her teenaged daughter negotiate the shoals of the college admission process (a subject worthy of a comic strip in itself). But who cares what the creator of the strip says; we’re interested in the larger symbolism here. Is the end of Cathy emblematic of the demise of print media itself, the end of civilization as we know it? Have women undergone some essential change? Have they ceased to be concerned with “the four basic guilt groups,” as Guisewite called them: food, love, work, and mom? Clearly, the answer is no. Visit a restaurant salad bar, check out the receipts for the latest rom-com, eavesdrop on female coworkers over lunch, and listen to me and my daughter parse each other’s tone of voice and you’ll see that the basics are still there. What has changed is the attitude that younger women now bring to these things. They don’t have Cathy’s sluggish resignation. Cathy complains but she doesn’t really fight. The gist of the strip is about shrugging things off and making do. It reminds me of the advice an older woman once gave me when I expressed admiration for her long marriage: the key to success in this area, she explained, was low expectations. In the same vein, didn’t Cathy end up marrying Irving, that unspectacular boyfriend? Better that shlub, it seemed, than nothing.

It may seem odd that the Cathy strip endured through a period of social unrest when attitudes toward gender changed radically and women made important strides in the workplace. But it is precisely because so much was changing in the larger society that Cathy’s apolitical griping had such resonance. Mostly the strip was about self esteem–low self esteem. Cathy’s low self esteem resonated with many women; it made them feel better about feeling bad at a time when feminist rhetoric was telling them they ought to feel full of energy and hope.

Cathy, in political terms, is a coming of age strip for the postmodern woman. It occupies the confused space between female inertia and feminist rebellion, a space that a new generation of women is moving away from. Where they are moving toward is unclear: whether to a more empowered place or to a more confined one (or, as seems the most likely, to a place that combines both aspects in some surprising new way), the result is going to be different from Cathy’s humorously depressed limbo. The tonality and balance of “the four guilt groups” are changing. A new dispensation is at hand, one that hopefully will replace “ACK!” with a more articulate critique of society and self. • 13 August 2010